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Tuesday 12 November 2019

Dion Fanning: Liverpool stuck in a cycle of change for the sake of change


Dion Fanning

As Louis van Gaal was channelling the spirit of Sinatra's nights with the Rat Pack at Manchester United's end-of-season awards on Tuesday night, Raheem Sterling was being booed by a section of Liverpool's supporters at their own ceremony.

Van Gaal's performance had the feel of those Vegas evenings when Frank and the boys amused themselves on stage, secure in the knowledge that whatever they did would be greeted by laughter.

Drink had always been taken, of course, as it reportedly had during Van Gaal's routine, and in this, as in so many things with LVG, it was possible to see a man entirely comfortable with his idiosyncrasies.

There might have been a time when a Manchester United manager promising that his side would aim for the impossible heights of second place would have resulted in questions about his suitability for the role.

Van Gaal made this bold statement with the elemental roar more commonly heard by men who have gone away to explore their masculinity during a weekend spent naked in the woods while living only on berries in an attempt to discover their inner warrior before breaking down in tears, presumably when they realise they don't have one.

Van Gaal, as we know, is entirely comfortable getting naked, at the right time, but happily he concluded that this event was not the right time.

If another manager with less chutzpah had attempted to lower expectations in this spectacular way during an evening when he enjoyed a glass of red then it would probably have resulted in a clarification or an apology for bringing the game, or at least awards ceremonies, into disrepute.

Van Gaal, on the contrary, has brought them into repute with his spirited display which demonstrated that a manager can overcome many things if he persuades people that what he's saying is true. Football clubs, after all, are not democracies.

Meanwhile, Liverpool were pressing ahead with their own end-of-season awards, a decision which could result in accusations that they had been badly advised, as the only thing worth celebrating about their season is its end.

If this event had taken place in the canteen after lunch with a few mumbled speeches, some scattered applause and the occasional mutter of 'What is this again?', Liverpool would have faced accusations that they'd got a little carried away.

This would still have been a shame-faced adherence to convention but for Liverpool to hire an arena for this night suggests that it is not Raheem Sterling who is unaware of his real standing in the world.

Brendan Rodgers will meet with FSG shortly for an 'end-of-season' review and maybe all sides will come to an agreement on transfer policy. Rodgers would be better off taking a stand rather than allowing events to develop as they did last summer where he dismissed the idea of signing Mario Balotelli before and after the actual signing of Mario Balotelli.

If Liverpool wanted to demonstrate there was a smarter way of operating than the traditional autocracy favoured by English clubs then they have failed.

They craved a collegiate approach but so far they have discovered that the wisdom of crowds also allows more people to shift the blame when things go wrong.

There is no presiding genius at Anfield and while these men might be hard to find, that doesn't mean you should abandon the search. FSG may decide to get rid of Rodgers and if they could replace him with Jurgen Klopp then it would be an improvement but Liverpool's problems won't be solved simply by changing the manager, no matter how appealing that might be.

As a club, they are often criticised for being stuck in the past but the more damaging problem for Liverpool is that they are stuck in the future.

They will celebrate the tenth anniversary of Istanbul this weekend but at least that is something to celebrate. They might lapse into sentimentalism when looking back but the greater danger is lapsing into sentimentalism when looking forward, believing that next year will be their year again. The laughter from the Kop last weekend when Steven Gerrard was asked if he was leaving the club in good condition suggests some awareness that the future isn't bright just because someone says it's so, just as Liverpool aren't playing in a redeveloped Anfield because there were some fine architectural drawings on Tom Hicks' wall.

FSG said they would under-promise and over-deliver but they have a manager who does the opposite, even if Rodgers is also the perfect manager for a club which seems to be perpetually beginning another long-term project shortly after abandoning the last one. With his own tendency to focus on anything other than the result, Rodgers is a natural fit if the club is to eternally anticipate a brave new dawn but it is equally true that sacking him will lead to another refusal to deal with the present in any way except by dismantling it.

Those who believe dismissing him would solve all Liverpool's problems might be as deluded as those who believe Rodgers can save the club.

The conundrum demonstrates that the issues go way beyond the manager and illustrate that whoever has advised Sterling - hell, he may even have a thought in his own head - may have done a very good job.

Sterling has been 'badly advised', a view that became conventional wisdom so swiftly that it can't possibly be right, even when his adviser is responding to criticism by calling Jamie Carragher "a knob" and Liverpool responded to this response by advising themselves to cancel the meeting with Sterling's agent.

There was a breathlessness to these developments on Thursday which gave the impression that some immutable moral laws were being broken by Sterling and his people rather than a footballer deciding he wanted to play for another club.

History might be kinder to Raheem Sterling than his numerous critics, many of whom have a view of Liverpool which doesn't correspond to the club's present reality.

Sterling may have concluded that the future is now and if he is allowed to leave he will end up at a club which will be in the Champions League next season.

He has gone about it in a messy and unwholesome way which has handed the advantage to Liverpool in the court of public opinion. They have won the pr battle and they can rejoice in that. At next year's end-of-season ceremony, they might even give themselves an award for it.

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